Big and bigger

by Paul Thomas / 26 November, 2015
Richie McCaw’s exit from rugby was one thing, but Jonah Lomu’s demise is off the scale.
Jonah Lomu
Jonah Lomu. Photo/Getty Images


Jonah Lomu’s death was a reminder of sport’s essentially ephemeral nature and its paradoxical capacity to engage emotions and transcend race, language and geography.

New Zealand Rugby and Richie McCaw contemplated delaying the announcement of his retirement. The departure of the greatest figure in our national game was a big deal, but it’s not a matter of life and death.

On the other hand, Lomu’s global fame was based on doing what ­generations of rugby players have done since ­William Webb Ellis, “with a fine disregard for the rules of football … took the ball in his arms and ran with it”, at Rugby School in 1823.

But no one had ever run with the ball quite like Lomu. He wasn’t the first supersized wing to light up a World Cup – that was John Kirwan in 1987 – and the suggestion that he was the prototype Pasifika All Black overlooks Bryan Williams and Michael Jones. But images of Lomu on the rampage – ­colossal, exotic, athletically freakish – thrilled the world. ­Coinciding with the sport’s shift to professionalism, a transformation in which he was one of the prime movers, they provided rugby with a globally relevant iconography it had lacked. Footage of McCaw winning a breakdown turnover would leave the uninitiated cold, but who wouldn’t be riveted by the sight of Lomu scattering defenders like ninepins on his way to the try line?

Then illness struck and the narrative took on a tinge of tragedy. The way Lomu coped with nature’s cruel trick, the grace and courage with which he lived life in the shadow of the dialysis machine, transported him beyond the realm of sporting heroism. He became a symbol of the human qualities we most admire. He was loved.

Apart from in the immediate aftermath of the 2007 World Cup quarter-final disaster, McCaw never displayed the ­vulnerability that evokes feelings beyond hero worship.

Indeed, there was something machine-like about his unbelievable consistency, his imperviousness to physical assault, the combination of will and endurance that drove him, enabling him to go as hard in the last minute as the first, the hunger to prevail that never dimmed despite success and the accumulation of ­silverware on an unprecedented scale.

When the world looked at Lomu, it saw a symbol of humanity. When the world looked at McCaw, it saw a symbol of the All Blacks. And because the All Blacks’ aura is envied and sometimes resented, McCaw was often a lightning rod for the equi­vocal feelings the team inspires beyond these shores.

The more flak McCaw attracted from foreign ­opponents, fans and media, the greater his stature at home.

So an Australian columnist could write that “throughout it all, [McCaw’s] wondrous hair was ruffled only by Quade Cooper who was in turn hated in his former homeland as if he had executed Bambi in prime time.” Wrong: Cooper wasn’t hated for committing rugby’s equivalent of lese-majesty; he was despised for taking repeated cheap shots at someone who was 10 times the player and man he was.

The Aussie columnist displayed a similar misunderstanding of both McCaw the player and leader and New Zealand rugby by suggesting he was a Darth Vader-like figure whose mysterious, vaguely malign powers propelled the All Blacks to victories they shouldn’t have gained: “The void left will be galactic, psychologically as well as tactically. In his absence the Wallabies could borrow one of the Sith Lords’ famous lines as they try to win a Bledisloe that hasn’t been on our soil for more than a decade: ‘There will be no one to stop us now.’”

I think they’ll find there will be.

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

Jacinda Ardern: Labour has found 'true allies'
81829 2017-10-20 05:47:37Z Politics

Jacinda Ardern: Labour has found 'true allies'

by RNZ

Labour Party leader and now Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says it's an "absolute honour and privilege" to be able to form a government for all Kiwis.

Read more
Final Portrait – movie review
81730 2017-10-20 00:00:00Z Movies

Final Portrait – movie review

by James Robins

Giacometti biopic covers a few days in his later years.

Read more
How an Auckland porn cinema was transformed into the Classic Comedy Club
80398 2017-10-20 00:00:00Z Theatre

How an Auckland porn cinema was transformed into t…

by Elisabeth Easther

Twenty years ago, Scott Blanks took over an old porn cinema on Queen St and transformed it into the cornerstone of Auckland’s stand-up comedy scene.

Read more
The colourful political life of Winston Raymond Peters
81824 2017-10-19 21:13:51Z Politics

The colourful political life of Winston Raymond Pe…

by RNZ

Government minister three times, fired twice, resigned once: whenever there's a political brouhaha, Winston Peters is never far away.

Read more
Jacinda Ardern: From distant star to Prime Minister
81815 2017-10-19 17:48:55Z Politics

Jacinda Ardern: From distant star to Prime Ministe…

by Glen Scanlon

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern has gone from a rising, but still pretty distant, political star to New Zealand's second youngest PM - all in 10 weeks.

Read more
Moonshine and wine: Jacobs Creek teams with Restaurateur Ryan Clarke
Rohingya Muslim refugees are clinging to the wreckage in Bangladesh
81785 2017-10-19 11:25:10Z World

Rohingya Muslim refugees are clinging to the wreck…

by Sally Blundell

Half a million Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar and are struggling with disease and hunger in a makeshift camp on the coast of Bangladesh.

Read more
Watch: The top 10 moments Winston was Winston
81778 2017-10-19 09:48:34Z Politics

Watch: The top 10 moments Winston was Winston

by Noted

We've compiled our favourite clips of interviews and moments when Winston Peters was at his glorious best (and worst).

Read more